The GMO debate


There is a lot of heated debate over the use of genetically modified organisms or GMOs, especially when it comes to food. I have not quite understood some of the opposition to it. There seems to be nothing intrinsically dangerous about food that has been genetically engineered in the laboratory to be different, since nature and agricultural practices have been genetically modifying organisms over a long time. I would have little worry about eating a genetically modified food, for example, although I must admit that I have not studied the topic in great detail.

There are of course dangers that one must be alert to, such as accidentally producing organisms that are dangerous or allowing big transnational corporations to gain monopolistic control of the patents of basic foodstuffs or ending up with just a single type of plant and thus losing the genetic diversity in foods that enable plants to survive the appearance of a deadly blight. But these are issues that can and should be addressed without necessarily depriving ourselves of the benefits that genetic engineering can provide, such as creating crops that do not require pesticides or can grow in more hostile environments or have important nutrients that people need but otherwise may not get, such as so-called ‘golden rice’ that contains beta-carotene or vitamin A, the lack of which reportedly kills hundreds of thousands of children each year.

Aasif Mandvi of the The Daily Show tries to get at the truth of the matter.

(This clip aired on April 22, 2015. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The introduction of GMOs into agriculture adds yet another level of power to corporate conglomerates and removes yet more choice and autonomy from actual farmers (especially those who want to grow their own seed or cultivate localized varieties).

    The concern that genetic modification may add proteins foreign to a given species and thus produce allergenic hazards seems plausible to me, though sorting out the wild accusations from the solid science from the PR-happytalk gets beyond my technical grasp quite quickly.

    Sometime back in the ’80s, my moral-alarm button got pushed rather hard by the announcement that pork producers, to create a lower-fat meat, had introduced human DNA into their herds. Rather to my surprise, my indignation did not catch on; apparently the project ended after just a few years when the human-swine crosses developed such a crippling arthritis that farmers could not raise them to maturity.

  2. Trickster Goddess says

    It didn’t help that the first GMOs on the market were engineered to withstand higher doses of insecticide. This helped increase yields for farmers and additional profits for the seed company which was also the pesticide maker, but it added no value for the end consumers and was more harmful for the environment. If they had led with consumer-beneficial products such as the Golden rice, there may have been less resistance developed toward GMOs.

    In addition, farmers are forced to sign strict “intellectual property” contracts which forbid them from savings seeds from their crops to plant the next season, thus forcing them to always buy new seeds every year. Many are nervous at the thought of a handful of large corporations having such tight control of humanity’s food production.

  3. Holms says

    I find it isnteresting to note that the only actual problems with GMO foods are all about business practices and patent law; the genetic science of the matter is settled.

  4. doublereed says

    I mean all those business practices and patent law issues are pretty damn serious. It has serious effects on economies and the environment.

    But like almost every other political issue, it’s basically impossible to have any sort of rational discourse because of money corrupting politics.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @3: I’m not sure what you mean by “settled”. Does that mean that there is no risk to human health or the environment from any possible modification that passes any country’s existing risk assessment protocols? The WHO has guidelines, but they are not binding on national legislation.

  6. says

    Even if GMO isn’t harmful to the environment (yeah, right, just look at bee populations), the search for and use of GMO plants is predicated three very idiotic ideas:

    1) The search for ways to support an ever increasing human population – 8, 9, 10 billion – without any concern for the planet’s limits or if controlling our own numbers would be better. If the population were still two billion as it was a century ago or we started culling our own herd, there wouldn’t be a need for GMO.

    2) The delusion that oil will last forever. It requires ignoring the fact that peak oil is already past, not to mention peak phosphorus. Commercial, artificial fertilizer (invented in the 1910s) is made from oil, which is what allowed for the population boom of the 20th century. Now that oil is in decline, fertilizer supplies will shrink and so will the food supply. Even if GMOs actually worked, it’s not going to be enough to make up for the drop in food production and the increased price of food as oil prices climb and supplies dwindle.

    3) The obscene idea that corporations could and should control the food supply. Copyrighting seeds and governments already banning the trade of seeds? Preventing farmers from cultivating future generations of plants they already have? Businesses preventing people from growing food and dictating what they can grow? Even if it weren’t a recipe for environmental, political and social disaster, it’s still egregious and insane.

    If we had managed ourselves and the planet properly starting a century ago, it’s unlikely that anybody would started researching GMO. Instead we’re going to see mass starvation and deaths, more food refugees, war, disease, etc. and nobody doing anything to stop it because it’s profitable, and the wealthy controlling food, the military and government.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    I am sorry to see some of the most common errors even amongst your readership.

    Pierce R. Butler #1:The introduction of GMOs into agriculture adds yet another level of power to corporate conglomerates…

    Watch the bleeping video. Mindless fear-mongering and vandalism by anti-GMO activists has helped to create a situation in which only large corporations can afford to back GMOs.

    Exhibit A: Golden Rice. Someone (Syngenta) engineered genes to increase the vitamin A content of rice, which could do a great deal to improve nutrition in the developing world. The gifted the technology to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Even though the IRRI is not a large for-profit corporation, activists have been incessant with their fear-mongering and have vandalised crops in the field, so that this really isn’t a happening thing, at least yet.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    Trickster Goddess #2: It didn’t help that the first GMOs on the market were engineered to withstand higher doses of insecticide…

    You seem very confused. The first two GMO projects to hit the market were

    1) Bt corn, which contains a gene for a very safe, very specific insecticide. Since the corn itself produces protein from that gene, lower doses of insecticide are required to control corn borers, etc. The “Bt toxin” protein is so safe that it is approved for use on organic crops and has never been shown harmful to humans.

    2) Glyphosate-resistance. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the brand name “RoundUp” herbicide. As herbicides go, glyphosate is remarkably safe and breaks down fairly easily in the environment. Making the crops resistant to glyphosate allows farmers to control weeds with a fairly safe, broad-spectrum herbicide. Glyphosate use has gone up, but use of other herbicides has gone down. If farmers are using glyphosate rather than atrazine, I have to say this is a good thing.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    Rob Grigjanis #5: Holms @3: I’m not sure what you mean by “settled”. Does that mean that there is no risk to human health or the environment from any possible modification that passes any country’s existing risk assessment protocols?…

    The answer is NO, but what the bleep kind of a standard is that?

    It is possible for food crop hazards to arise even from non-GMO techniques.
    The case of the poison potato

    The Lenape potato, developed in the 1960s for the snack business, made a damn fine potato chip. Unfortunately, it was also kind of toxic…

    The only GMO project to show demonstrable problems was putting a gene from Brasil nuts into soybeans. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans.
    Because the source, Brasil nuts, was known to cause allergies in some people, they tested it and found that the protein they had crossed over was indeed a strong allergen. Project abandoned.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    left0ver1under #6: Even if GMO isn’t harmful to the environment (yeah, right, just look at bee populations),…

    If you have convincing scientific evidence that colony collapse disorder can be attributed to the effect of GMOS, please present. Since I already know the answer to that one, I won’t be waiting to hear back.

    1) The search for ways to support an ever increasing human population – 8, 9, 10 billion – without any concern for the planet’s limits or if controlling our own numbers would be better. If the population were still two billion as it was a century ago or we started culling our own herd, there wouldn’t be a need for GMO.

    Human populations are rising. I don’t see how you think we would be better off facing that problem with one hand tied behind our back by limiting our technology.

    2) The delusion that oil will last forever. ..

    You are ranging pretty broadly.

    3) The obscene idea that corporations could and should control the food supply. Copyrighting seeds and governments already banning the trade of seeds? Preventing farmers from cultivating future generations of plants they already have? Businesses preventing people from growing food and dictating what they can grow? Even if it weren’t a recipe for environmental, political and social disaster, it’s still egregious and insane.

    It takes a lot of money to develop intellectual property. You seem to think that corporations should not be allowed to profit from their intellectual property if it concerns food. If corporations can’t profit from IP, they won’t spend lots of money developing IP.

    Patents are a way of getting intellectual property into the public domain. The patent expires after a certain number of years. Unfortunately the length of time has been going up (partly under influence from trade pacts with other countries with longer timelines).

    Growing crops from existing seeds: Why do people even mention this in the context of GMOs? It is not a GMO-specific problem. Before GMOs, there were the Green Revolution hybrids. And hybrids do not breed true. Saying you want traditional propagation methods is equivalent to saying you want traditional harvest efficiency. Which is saying that you want people to starve.

    I’m sorry to say it Mano, but Gawker has a better level of reader comments on this topic than I’m seeing on your blog.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    One project I am waiting to see the outcome of:
    The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project

    To summarise, the American chestnut was once the dominant tree species in the eastern USA. Then a blight from Asia was introduced, so that most Americans today may not remember seeing any trees or chestnuts.

    There is a project to restore the American chestnut tree. Actually, there are two projects. One involves lots of crossing and back-crossing with the Chinese chestnut. This can be a tedious affair. The other project introduces a gene for the enzyme oxalate oxidase, which takes care of the toxin produced by the blight fungus. The gene chosen for this came from wheat. So far, resistance is looking pretty good.

    This is being run by a non-profit, not a large corporation. I am eager to see whether the American public will accept GMO technology if it is put to service in what I consider to be a good cause. Or whether it will be targeted by the anti-scientific boobs who spread fear and vandalise fields.

  12. Holms says

    @5
    Settled in the sense that the concerns routinely raised against the science of genetics modification – natural pesticides killing the consumer, mRNA merging with the consumer, mutants, precautionary principle ‘we don’t really know what will happen but let’s stop it now’, all the ‘frankenfoods’ shit in general – are ascientific. That is not to ssay that safety / ethics considerations can be abandoned.

    @6
    Colony collapse disorder is not linked to GMOs; this has been checked. As for your numbered points,
    1) GMO foods can answer problems of not just quantity to stave off starvation, but also quality, to address malnutrition. Also, there is no point pining for the days of 100 years ago, the world we live in has 7.2 billion people and GMOs can help with that. I can only hope you were exaggerating when you mentioned culling.

    2) If fertiliser shortages are going to be causing food decline, it seems that GMOs could have a role to play in making up the shortfall. Also, yes, they work.

    3) As I noted earlier, there do seem to be legitimate areas for concern in terms of business practices, I just wish anti-GMO activists didn’t make stuff up about the genetics side of things. Note also the point raised in the video and #7 Reginald – part of the monopolistic business model concerns arose out of activist meddling.

  13. grendelsfather says

    I am an plant molecular biologist who has been using genetic engineering methods for academic purposes for over 30 years. I am just popping in to second everything Reginald Selkirk has said. The FUD spread by the anti-GMO side is every bit as wrong and off the mark as the anti-evolution and anti-global warming propaganda spread by those particular science deniers. The science is clear. Once that is stripped out, what’s left is anti corporation feelings, which is another thing entirely.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reginald Selkirk @ # 7 – I am sorry to see such missing-the-point errors in the readership here.

    The monopolization of seed production by conglomerate corporations does indeed threaten our global food supply, as well as our farmers and rural economies overall. We need systematic incentives to build robust countrysides, not ways to funnel all the money to exploitative tycoons. The hyperbole and scientific illiteracy displayed by many anti-GMO campaigners does nothing to change that reality, but contributes greatly to obscuring it.

    As for Golden Rice, I remain unconvinced. In nearly all areas, a farm economy which allowed large numbers of people to stay on and cultivate the land would also see lots of “truck farmers” growing and selling a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, providing an even healthier source of multiple vitamins without need for this sort of contrived and gimmicky “solution”.

    Thank you for confirming my suspicions about allergenic proteins in your # 9. Any comments about the problem of industrialized cannibalism – and the economic forces that promote such tendencies – that I mentioned in my concluding paragraph @ # 1?

  15. Trickster Goddess says

    Reginald Selkirk @8

    When I wrote “insecticide” I meant “herbicide”, thinking of the Round-Up Ready GMOs. My main point was that in terms of building public acceptance, asking uncertain or nervous consumers to eat modified food that was only a benefit to farmers and had no direct benefit to them was a public relations misstep. If things like the Flavr Savr tomatoes had been successful, there may have been better early favorable attitudes by the general public.

  16. Reginald Selkirk says

    Pierce R. Butler #16: I am sorry to see such missing-the-point errors in the readership here.

    Because there is only one point, an you have some monopoly in determining what it is.

    The monopolization of seed production by conglomerate corporations does indeed threaten our global food supply, as well as our farmers and rural economies overall. We need systematic incentives to build robust countrysides, not ways to funnel all the money to exploitative tycoons. The hyperbole and scientific illiteracy displayed by many anti-GMO campaigners does nothing to change that reality, but contributes greatly to obscuring it.

    You think corporate monopolization is a bad thing. Fine. As pointed out in the video, and by commenters above, the anti-science dumbfuckery engaged in by anti-GMO campaigners does actually change reality, by making the problem worse. It is not just obscuring the problem, it is actually making it worse. Examples provided.

    As for Golden Rice, I remain unconvinced. In nearly all areas, a farm economy which allowed large numbers of people to stay on and cultivate the land would also see lots of “truck farmers” growing and selling a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, providing an even healthier source of multiple vitamins without need for this sort of contrived and gimmicky “solution”.

    “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Somehow this magical perfect solution you envision isn’t happening, and yet you appeal to it in order to forestall someone making an actual improvement. Own goal. Could you at least state clearly that you consider the activists who are actively vandalizing fields of golden rice are bad people who are doing a bad thing?

    Any comments about the problem of industrialized cannibalism – and the economic forces that promote such tendencies – that I mentioned in my concluding paragraph @ # 1?

    If you can provide a reliable source, I will look into it. I do not recall the specific episode.
    In general, as a molecular biologist, the concept of putting DNA from one species into another does not alarm me. Humans have >20,000 genes in their genome. To a zero order approximation, they are the same genes that pigs (or any other mammal, and even any other vertebrate) have. You may know that pig parts (heart valves, insulin) have been used in humans for decades.

  17. says

    Reginald Selkirk (#10)

    I’m sorry to say it Mano, but Gawker has a better level of reader comments on this topic than I’m seeing on your blog.

    Then why are you here instead of there, complaining incessantly? Is it masochism?

  18. Reginald Selkirk says

    Then why are you here instead of there, complaining incessantly? Is it masochism?

    1) Been there, done that.
    2) I get green stamps.
    3) To serve the public interest.

  19. Holms says

    “Then why are you here instead of there, complaining incessantly? Is it masochism?”

    Do you have a response to the criticisms raised against your post #6, or is your silence to be taken as acceptance of those criticisms perhaps?

  20. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reginald Selkirk @ # 18: Because there is only one point, an you have some monopoly in determining what it is.

    Wow, thanks for illustrating my case so succinctly for me.

    And yes: when I made the point, in my own little comment, I do have that power.

    You think corporate monopolization is a bad thing.

    Yep. If you don’t grasp that, please be quiet while the grownups talk.

    … the anti-science dumbfuckery engaged in by anti-GMO campaigners does actually change reality, by making the problem worse.

    Maybe you should go to Pharyngula’s current Baltimore thread and read up on how “inappropriate” protest does not invalidate the grievances which provoke it.

    Somehow this magical perfect solution you envision isn’t happening, and yet you appeal to it in order to forestall someone making an actual improvement.

    The “actual improvement” of GoldenRice™® does more to consolidate the power of agrobiz corps, both directly and by providing a fig leaf for their increased herbicide sales and seed monopolizaton than it does for public health. To return to the Baltimore analogy – do you think the tear gas and taser vendors are providing “actual improvement” to that city?

    If you can provide a reliable source, I will look into it.

    It’s late and I’m tired, so no links tonight. Fwliw, I read of this in the Wall Street Journal sometime in the later 1980s. Since the experiment failed (as measured by economics), it neither lasted long nor made much news; since it occurred before the Web, little of that news went online.

    … as a molecular biologist, the concept of putting DNA from one species into another does not alarm me.

    Perhaps as a biologist, you should put a little more thought into the ethics of your profession as applied to the human race, before you (collectively) face your A-bomb moment as the physicists did.

  21. Reginald Selkirk says

    Could you at least state clearly that you consider the activists who are actively vandalizing fields of golden rice are bad people who are doing a bad thing?

    Your answer to this appears to be no. I have no more use for you.

  22. Reginald Selkirk says

    The “actual improvement” of GoldenRice™® does more to consolidate the power of agrobiz corps, both directly and by providing a fig leaf for their increased herbicide sales and seed monopolizaton than it does for public health.

    That would take some explaining, since Golden Rice is a project of the International Rice Research Institute (as previously noted in this thread, thanks for paying attention), not big agrobiz corps. I understand that people like you don’t value rational explanations or evidence though, so I won’t be wainting for your explanation.

  23. Pierce R. Butler says

    Reginald Selkirk @ # 24: … Golden Rice is a project of the International Rice Research Institute (as previously noted in this thread, thanks for paying attention), not big agrobiz corps.

    It’s also the showpiece of the GMO industry, dragged out at every turn regardless of relevance to whatever criticism was made; a pilot project of inestimable pragmatic-experience, personnel-training & PR value; and, I suspect, a generous source of tax deductions. How much more explaining do you need?

    But please – stick the ad-hominem flounce!

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